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Amsterdam and Paris

FRANCE | Friday, 30 May 2008 | Views [743]

[UPDATE:  A few weeks and half a continent later in an extreme case of "esprit de casement", it occurred to me that my experience on the train in Paris might best have been reported as "Merde on the Orient Express".  Pity that.]

OK, this will be a bit of a rush job since we leave for out Finland trip in the morning.

After about 7 hours of driving across Germany we were dropped off in Amsterdam.  Due to (I assume) Kumuka wanting us to have a group dinner on the last night in Amsterdam (and the last night of the tour) we didn't have a group dinner waiting for us and we were instead told to look after ourselves and get our own dinner before the show that evening.  We literally chilled out in the evening as the weather had turned quite cold and rainy (but with only 2 days of crappy weather in a 33 day trip we did pretty damn well), but I did have a really nice 4 euro kebab from one of the many kebab restaurants.  I'm not sure if this is due to immigration or due to the fact that everywhere you turned you'd see or smell a "coffee" shop.  Let's just say that Amsterdam is not known for its rock and roll, but it makes up for it in the other two departments (all perfectly legal and taxed I might add).  Amsterdam is an interesting experiment in permissiveness, but in the process they've attracted a lot of losers and deviants to their fair city (and I guess raked in a lot of money off a lot of tourists) and cheapened it somewhat.  It's OK if you avoid the city centre, but we were dropped off in the middle of it with nowhere else to go.  It could be the fact that I was tired and grumpy from a long bus ride, or the second hand THC wafting out of every second doorway, but it made for a cranky night for this tourist.  So you want the details?  Well, mindful of the public nature of this forum I'll have to hide behind the "What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam" slogan (I've never been to Vegas, but it's got to be pretty pissweak compared to the Dam), and you'll have to ask me privately.  Oh and for anyone putting together my abnormally high affections towards Berlin and all this talk of raves the days before with my general grumpiness in Amsterdam and assuming anything illegal in Germany (as has just struck me one might), don't - my feelins for Berlin were not chemically induced, it just rocks.

So anyway, the next day Emma and I wandered through Amsterdam in the daylight (after a slow relaxed hot chocolate) and it's quite nice, though the city centre is still to be avoided - it's even more sad on a Monday morning.  We found Nemo - a science museum that wasn't open (we knew that already, it was just as good a place to walk to as any), and walked along some nice canals and saw a dog walking itself (the owner had his hands full with shopping, so the dog helped out by carrying the end of the leash in its mouth (it was adorable!).  Having found the meeting point for that night's dinner a few hours early, we hung out in the park and casually wandered past some more canals.  The actual canals in Amsterdam are (in my opinion) slightly nicer than the ones in Venice because there's more space and the northern European buildings on either side are more attractive.  What it doesn't have over Venice is that it's got traffic coming at you from all directions.  If you aren't on the tramlines you're on the road, and if you get off the road you're in danger of getting smacked by a bicycle, and it's all the same paved surface and looks the bloody same (OK, tram tracks are a little more obious than that).  But the quieter canals are just lovely.  Anyway, then we met the group for the last group dinner, a fairly bog standard Chinese meal.  This was pretty disappointing since the rest of the group meals had been pretty good and had given us a chance to try the local traditional food.  Turns out Amsterdam has no culinary traditions, if you don't count the masses of steakhouses, kebab shops and dodgy brownies that cater for the stoned tourists.  We ended the night with a boozy canal cruise that was actually quite fun (even though people kept crossing out the "c" on the sign (-:).

So those were unfortunately my impressions of Amsterdam, painted in broad brushstrokes by a guy who'd forgotten his glasses, and it was on to Paris via Belgium (where my feet did touch the ground for 20min in a service stop where we bought some Belgian chocolates and I had a nice sausage roll).

The tour ended in Paris.  We entered the city and gto dropped at the Gare du Nord, so those going on to London could catch the train.  As the hotel Emma and I had booked was in the next suburb we were pretty happy about that and said goodbye to our tourmates of (up to) the past month.  We checked into our hotel in Montmartre and wandered up the hill for a nice dinner outside with a view of Paris.  In that space of about 2 hours we also counted 17 people carrying baguettes (some more than one).  With one French stereotype ticked off and no garlic necklaces in sight we retired to bed for an early night.

Next day we walked down to the nearest stop for a tourist bus that circles the city sights with commentary that you can hop on and hop off as you please.  We took it around the Arc de Triumph, along the Champs Eleysee (OK, my spelling of French names is atrocious, but they bloody well deserve it with their callous disregard for consonants) and hopped off at the Eiffel Tower. 

I really really liked the Eiffel Tower.  We've all seen it, but one feature I hadn't seen was that they have the names of famous French scientists, mathematicians and engineers inscribed on the lowest arch (I saw Lagrange, Lavoisier and Curie among others).  This, coupled with something I read (or heard on the bus commentary) suddenly brought home what Eiffel had done.  He'd built the tower with no adornment (aside from those names), and with the steel skeleton deliberately visible (I think he was trying to demonstrate the use of steel as a building material for the Expo it was built for).  As a result the tower celebrates the beauty of engineering, of science, of mathematics.  It shows how the practical can have its own inherent style, without the need for bells and whistles or frills, or even paint (except to protect from rust).  He's taken a simple goal - to put a viewing platform higher above the city than any before it, and done it in an elegantly simple, single minded way.  The way the 4 feet spread the weight sideways for stability with arches that distribute it evenly, the way those 4 towers merge gradually into one soaring spire, cancelling each other out like the factors in a previously complicated algebraic equation (the mathematicians reading this will hopefully know what I mean there), even the way that each viewing platform is twic as high as the one before it, all stand as an example of the beauty of the simple.  Tip for visiting the Eiffel Tower: climb the stairs - you'll save 4 euro each (8.10 to the top taking the stairs to level 2  and then the lift to level 3 vs 12.00 with lifts the whole way) and probably get there quicker (the line for the lifts looked over an hour long and it only took 5min to line up for the stairs and 20min to climb them).  We did get State of Origin updates from Mum while up the tower, we consoled ourselves with the wonderful panoramic views from each of the 3 viewing platforms.

Next we hopped back on the bus to the Louvre to see that cool glass pyramid they've plonked out in the courtyard.  I really liked it, it works really well as a blend of old and new.  We didn't go in, Emma and I had a general policy of not going into museums and galleries on our trips since you often spend an hour lining up, a fair chunk of money getting in and a few hours getting tired looking at stuff you could see just as well on the internet or in a book.  That's not to say that I don't appreciate knowledge and history, anyone who knows me well knows it's obsessively the opposite, it's more a matter of priorities.  If I have one or two days to see a city, I'd rather see the buildings and people and things you can't get the same feel for in a book.  Paintings look just as good on a screen or on paper (to my untrained eye anyway).  This doesn't count for sculptures, or buildings or views or general geography, or things we really specifically want to see.

Anyhoo, next it was off to Notre Dame, which I didn't really like the look of from the outside - it just looks unfinished with its unspired towers, which apparently were the style for a (thankfully brief) time.  Inside is nice, however with cool stained glass windows.  Then it was a late lunch in the Luxembourg gardens (a sandwich from a chain that might be called "Metro" if it were French, and if they had no concept of puns), before seeing the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluneys museum (partly housed I think in a Roman ruin).  Look them up if you like, but they're quite good (Emma's Mum is big into weaving), and the one called "Sight" is a cack with what looks like a tired Lady at the end of a long day of manedressing showing a chuffed young Unicorn his new do (however, if we can see his face in the mirror it means that he can't, so he must be smiling at us).

Then we had dinner at on of our friend KT's favourite restaurants (something about Cheval KT).  I think I had tongue ("Onglet de boef"), but it was yummy whatever it was and the sauce was divine.  It really is the simplicity that gives French cooking its marvelous character - just whack a couple of interesting ingredients on a plate, add a nice sauce and voila!  After that it was a loong walk back to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up at night with yellow sodium lighting, and on the hour set off with hundreds of white flashing lights, like it's covered with flashbulbs.  It's very nice.  We also got to hear a young French man trying to score with 4 American school-leavers next to us (well, maybe at least one of them, I don't think he was picky).  At one point he said "I sink Americans are ze most intelligent people in ze world" to which one of the girls replied in a dumshit valleygirl accent "Yah, I wish more people thauht thaht".  Good luck to him, they deserved each other.

Next day we went out to Versailles.  The day started badly when...how should I put this tactfully...oh who am I kidding, I stepped in a turd on the train.  We think it was human.  That's what you get when you charge people money to go to the toilet.  Needless to say we changed carriages at the next stop, but interestingly, the rest of the people on the over-half-full carriage did not.  Must be used to it.  Anyway, after 2 hours getting there (including our train being diverted to a station 1.2km from the palace at the last minute - qat least we didn't end up in Vienna) we were a little disappointed with the result.  Most of the front was under renovation.  The gardens, though impressivly vast, were full of American and French teenagers giggling and swearing and whooping and taking photos of the statues' genitals.  Also, while waiting for Emma at a loo in a classical/baroque garden I was subjected to the music from the cafe next door (this is an official Versaille cafe inside the Palace of Versailles gardens) - presumably the Dauphans favourite club track which kept yelling "Everybody dance now!" and violently extolling me to get this party started.  So I was in a shitty mood when it came time to get gouged for $10 more than I was expecting to go in (Emma having already cracked the shits earlier while cycling around the gardens).  In the end it was a nice enough palace.  Nice decorations and a great use of colour.  The hall of mirrors (which only has mirrors down one side, the other having views of the garden) was pretty cool too.  But if you asked me if I'd recommend it, I'd say it's not worth the effort and expense, despite the efforts of my own grandfather as a gardener there after WWI.

So then, after heamorraging money for the 2 days till then, we decided to grab some food from a supermarket and head up to the steps of Sacre Coeur, a lovely cathedral on the top of the hill that Montmartre is.  We got some dip and a tomato and some cheese and a baguette and a bottle of beujelais and joined the other tourists up there eating our food, enjoying the buskers (these guys had their own PA) and above all, being above all of Paris with a lovely vista at our feet.  It's a really relaxed atmosphere and even though it's full of tourists, it doesn't have that touristy vibe, possibly because all the good things about it are free (except the funicular you could take if you're too fat and lazy and American to climb the relatively short stairs up through the park, which is 1.5 euro each way - we happily took the stairs on each of the 3 days we were there, it was a 5min walk from our hotel).  Unfortunately I stupidly ordered a beer and a G&T from the little bar at the end of the street on the way home and was slugged 16 euro ($25) which doubled the cost of the night and damaged the vibe somewhat.  I should have just walked out.

Next day, we had until 5pm before our airport shuttle picked us up and, having done all the sights we wanted to see, we decided to spend the day in Montmartre which is the best part of Paris anyway apart from the Eiffel Tower in our opinion.  We went into Sacre Coeur this time and it's really really lovely.  They ask for silence since it's a working church, a request that most people except the Japanese (who possibly can't read the signs) and a few others respected.  I like the sound of my voice as much as the next guy, and if I can shut the hell up for 10min, you'd think anyone could, guess I'm not the biggest bore in the world after all (-:  As well as the silence (and they don't make the floors out of a material than echoes footsteps like some other cathedrals, so it really is quite quiet) they've walked the prefect line between simplicity and ornamentation, allowing for the most part the lines between the stones speak for themselves so that the important mosaics above the altar and elsewhere aren't drowned out in the bling that some cathedrals have their insides draped in.  It's also the first cathedral I saw in Europe that wouldn't be substantially improved with the addition of a copper roof (except for the ones that already have a copper roof that is, let's not get silly).  We climbed the tower for another wonderful view of the city (you can climb just about everything in Paris, but we climbed the best I think).

Sacre Coeur was built in about 1871 and the Eiffel Tower was built in about 1889.  My general review of Paris is that it's a fairly bland, overpriced wank that has way more ego than true style, and if not for 2 decades of building in the late 19th century it would look almost the same as about 10 other European cities (and Budapest has the Danube).  But it did have its nice points and we were at the cranky end of a very long tour, and I'm sure I won't stop a single tourist euro from being spent there (-:

After that it was back to Sweden for a week of rest and relaxation ond good food courtesy of Anders and Agnete in Rockhammar, apart from the hours spent writing up this blog and a night in Örebro (which, with its mediæval castle, two copper-spired cathedrals, cobblestoned streets, lovely old city buildings, futuristic watertower offering a FREE view of a city so cute you want to grab it by the cheeks and go "wigewigewigee", has many elements to rival the big cities of Europe all in a 60,000 odd person compact size).  Like I said we're off to Finland, and as I finish this, Emma's just now put the photos up on the web album.  I was going to do a wrap up of the Kumuka tour itself, but that will have to wait until after Finland (or not at all).  Love to all and to all a good night (for now).

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